Thursday, November 1, 2007

Sikkim to Kathmandu

Yesterday I worked on an hour and a half long blog
entry which was deleted due to my clumsiness. This is
an abridged version of the last few days.

Leaving Gangtok on the 28th of October at 8 am for a 5
hour bus ride to the large sprawling town of Siliguri
in the plains below, I was reflecting on how relatively
peaceful Dargeeling and Sikkim were for a traveler.
There are no shop keepers addressing you mid stride, "Yes
somethings? Come inside, have a look". That sort of
thing. In other touristy areas of South Asia You could be walking down the street
bleeding or deep in a personal conversation or crying,
whatever it doesn't matter and shop opwers and barkers will come right
up and hit you with the bluntest and most awkward of
sales pitches. So in retrospect Dargeeling and the
surrounding hills were somewhere I could have spent
much more time if I wasn't in a hurry to beat the
weather in Nepal.

Reaching Siliguri 5 hours later I was reminded that I
was still in India. This border town / quasi frontier town
seams to supply much of the hill area I just came from
(and probably most of eastern Nepal) with consumer and
durable goods. The main roads are jammed
solid with endless traffic. I was able to catch
another connecting bus to the actual border town of
Panitanki about an hour down the road.

On the bus I had the first of three conversations with
three Nepalese folks who all had the exact samething to
say. No one can make a living in Nepal. Between the
Government taxes and the Maoist "taxes" (aka being
robbed), the lack of education, and the lack of industry,
people feel hopeless. This was in stark contrast to
India where everyone wanted me to magically sponsor
them, on the spot to the states. But never once did I
hear this kind of dire self assessment of India by
Indians. People would say India is getting expensive
and that the people who live in the country are
"backwards" but in general Indians are not crying
about the sky falling as in Nepal. This was kind of
a shock.

My first indication that things in Nepal are in fact
slipping "backwards" in comparison to India was the
Indian immigration office. I have never thought of
India as efficient. Resourceful yes, but efficient,
never. Yet the immigration office there it was a picturesque
little one room shack with a single immigration officer handling
foreigners paperwork. I was in and out in no time,
while having a conversation with an American couple
who were heading to a Christian music concert somewhere
nearby in Nepal. Arriving at the Nepalese immigration
office after a hot and dusty walk over a very long
bridge I came across a much larger building with a
counter for visa service. Behind the counter were 5
men processing the same three tourists, (my self
included) as their Indian counterpart. The Nepalese
staff seemed to be divided into two teams, an A team
and a B team. The A team consisted of two men sitting
their desks busily hand copying all of my passport
information from the form on which I had just done the same.
The B team consisted of two men doing nothing.
Or, rather one was sitting to the side shouting at the
others in an animated way, about what I don't know.
His B team counter part across the room was sitting at
a desk glaring at all the coming visitors and equally
as angrily tapping his pencil vertically up and down
on his desk. Facilitating all of this was what I will
call in good Indian tradition the peon, who talked to
the coming tourists and handed out papers and then
handed papers back to his coworkers. It was really

Once in Nepal the official state bank money exchanger
would not accept anything but the smallest of Indian
pocket change so I headed to a private money changer
who despite having a sign hand painted on the wall
reading "no Indian Rs. 500 or Rs. 1000 notes
changed" gladly exchanged my large Indian currency.

Looking around the difference between India and Nepal
was immediate and obvious. Nepal is lagging
behind India. The number of stores and the lack of
business they were doing told you everything you need
to know. 5 minutes away in India business was
booming, exploding, thriving. In Nepal there were
mostly liquor shops and stores selling Indian goods at
a Rs. 5 mark up (to cover the smuggling of course!).

Somewhere en route to Nepal I was told there was a
general strike in the area to which I had originally wanted to
go, thus the change of plans and the decision to head
to Kathmandu instead of Taplejung.

I bought a bus ticket and had to laugh. The A team B
team phenomenon had fully extended itself to the bus
company as well. Again a counter with 5 men sitting
while two worked but this time it was just
unbelievable. It was funny in the way an expertly
written comedy is funny. These guys were all shouting
and yelling at each other, throwing books of tickets
at each other and trying to figure out what it was
they had cryptically written in their ticket books
which were a maze of jumbled text written at all
angles across the page.

I got the last seat on the 4pm bus. They laughed;
they knew what I was in store for. You know why the
bad kids sit in the back seat in grade school? Because
it's bumpy. This bus was intensely hot the instant I
stepped on board. Everyone was sweating and the bus was
beyond full. The back seat which was just two
cushioned boards that weren't attached to the rest of
the bus or each other (making for a huge uneven crack
in the middle!) had 6 grown men sitting there like a
hot sweaty litter of puppies trying to find their
mothers teat. The teat was comfort and none of us were
to ever find it! 15 hours of what can only be
described as a rollercoaster / moon-bounce / sauna
followed. We would all kind of just barely fall
asleep on each other and then be ejected out of our
seats and thrown forward only to be covered by a layer
of dust that was shaken loose by the jolt. Every now
and then we would have to sit up and push the chair
back in to place. I bundled my sweater up and used it
as a kneepad so that my knee would survive the endless
bashing against the seat in front of me. It went on
like this from 4pm until 7:30am when the bus became
stuck in heavy traffic entering the only road into and
out of Kathmandu tothe south. It was hell, some kind of
test to make sure that I really wanted to give up my
comfortable life in the States for 7 months. I only
just barely passed. At the traffic jam I grabbed my
bag off the roof and walked for another two hours to a
cheapish hotel in Thamel the tourist area of the city.

Kathmandu has changed a bit. It seams like it's
growing "up". It certainly has grown and modernized in a
lot of ways. Less people on bicycles and more (almost
everyone) on motorcycles and even private cars! A lot
of the little tucked away abandoned places have been
developed including my favorite garden. Once a
romantically overgrown throwback to the Rana period in
Nepal it oozed "colonial era charm" (i.e excess of the Ranns), without having
been part of a colony! It has subsequently been
redeveloped into "The Secrete Garden" or something
like that with a huge entrance fee and security
guards. It was such a wonderful reward for those who
took the time to look in each nook and cranny of the
city and now its been packaged and is being sold at a
hefty price. Kind of the general phenomenon in the
city. Good for Nepal no so good for me.

I did accidentally run into 3 of the 6 people I know
in Nepal last night while looking for a Halloween
party. It was really fun catching up and made up for
the blog disaster and roach soup! earlier in the day.

I'll try and upload a few photos this week. Have to figure out how that is going to work.

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